Opernhaus Zürich 2022-23 Review: Lakmé

By João Marcos Copertino


By the end of the first act, I knew it: to watch Sabine Devieilhe singing “Lakmé” is one of the greatest privileges of my life. Sopranos who can undertake Leo Delibes’ most cultivated operatic role are so rare that generations could be named after them: from Mady Mesplé to Natalie Dessay, Joan Sutherland to Christiane Eda-Pierre, Mado Robin to Lily Pons.

Our generation is Sabine Devieilhe’s.

Reigning Supreme

Although I begin by placing Devieilhe in a tradition of Lakmé interpreters, it is more a matter of artistic affiliation than of any kind of emulation. Her Lakmé is the most sorrowful and melancholic that one can hear. Devieilhe has an extremely agile voice, but her high notes shine best when she sings them in calmly built pianissimos. The core of her Lakmé comes from the emotional exploration of that sonority. Her voice is the oneiric attraction-point of the opera, an invitation to a world where staccati linger in the room’s acoustics and listeners’ hearts. Her enunciation is impeccable. Even in the higher register notes, when textual comprehensibility is usually sacrificed, I could understand what she was singing without any aid.

If Devieilhe reigns absolute as this generation’s Lakmé, her two co-leads—her father and her lover—have a more democratic pool of performers. Both Philippe Sly and Edgardo Rocha—Nilakantha and Gérald, respectively—were debuting in their roles. Sly has a fresh sound, with a particularly beautiful vocal body in the medium and upper register. His emission is clear and sharp, and his command of the text is extremely scenic. Nonetheless, even though it was a concert version of the opera, Sly’s youthful voice and persona made him less of a father and more of an equal opponent for Gérald.

Edgardo Rocha has a beautiful lyric timber that transitioned during the performance from a more Rossianean sound toward something closer to the French vocal school of his co-leads. The upper range of his voice has a particularly beautiful break that he exploits with very good nasal vowels. Although Rocha’s French was good, Edmond Gondinet and Philippe Gille’s words were not always in the tip of his tongue. The French words’ inflections and articulations were sometimes sacrificed for the sake of singing a melody-line. A couple of times, his phrases’ terminations were a bit more abrupt than necessary. It is a role under construction for him, but the prospect looks promising.

Striking Singers

The minor roles were well-sung by all singers, with a special mention due to the very striking Björn Bürger as Frédéric: his big voice and good French made him almost a mirror for Nilakantha. Siena Licht Miller’s Mallika was charming, and Saveliy Andreev sang Hadji with a smaller voice than others in the cast, but with good phrasing intentions.

The Zürich Opera choir, prepared by Janko Kastelic, sang the opera well, especially the third act off-stage passages. The Philarmonia Zürich, under the direction of Alexander Joel, sounded heavier than necessary. The strings’ sound was somewhere between lofty and vagarious. Until the third act, the orchestra struggled to find a dynamic that was not forte—maybe they were unaccustomed to playing an opera from the stage instead of the pit.

The opera was not staged, but it had efficient stage directions by Natascha Ursuliak. It is hard to imagine how to stage “Lakmé” nowadays in a way that would not alienate audiences. It is, after all, an opera with problematic depictions of race, and an opaque, uncertain critique of colonialism. Given the high demands of the lead role, it is almost certain that any staging of the opera in the near future will have Devieilhe as the protagonist.

Finally, an uncredited musician in Zürich’s “Lakmé” is the theater acoustics. It is a small opera house—no more than twelve hundred seats—, but it has some of the best programming in Europe. Its room, so cozy, is perfect to make singers’ voices audible in all their small subtilities. One leaves Zürich’s “Lakmé” with Devieilhe’s voice marked on their mind.


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